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The Catholic Defender: Saint Peter Damian "Doctor of the Church"


On Feb. 21, the Church honors Saint Peter Damian, a Benedictine monk who strove to purify the Church during the early years of its second millennium.



Born during 1007 in the Italian city of Ravenna, Peter belonged to a large family but lost both his father and mother early in life. An older brother took the boy into his household, yet treated him poorly. But another of Peter’s brothers, a priest, took steps to provide for his education; and the priest's own name, Damian, became his younger brother’s surname.


the youngest of a large but poor noble family. Orphaned early, he was at first adopted by an elder brother, who ill-treated and under-fed him while employing him as a swineherd.


Maybe because he was orphaned and had been treated shabbily by one of his brothers, Peter Damian was very good to the poor. It was the ordinary thing for him to have a poor person or two with him at table and he liked to minister personally to their needs.


Peter escaped poverty and the neglect of his own brother when his other brother, who was archpriest of Ravenna, took him under his wing. His brother sent him to good schools and Peter became a professor.

Peter excelled in school while also taking up forms of asceticism, such as fasting, wearing a hair shirt, and spending long hours in prayer with an emphasis on reciting the Psalms. He offered hospitality to the poor as a means of serving Christ, and eventually resolved to embrace voluntary poverty himself through the Order of Saint Benedict.


Already in those days, Peter was very strict with himself. He wore a hair shirt under his clothes, fasted rigorously and spent many hours in prayer. Soon, he decided to leave his teaching and give himself completely to prayer with the Benedictines of the reform of Saint Romuald at Fonte Avellana. They lived two monks to a hermitage.


Peter was so eager to pray and slept so little that he soon suffered from severe insomnia. He found he had to use some prudence in taking care of himself. When he was not praying, he studied the Bible.


The abbot commanded that when he died Peter should succeed him. Abbot Peter founded five other hermitages. He encouraged his brothers in a life of prayer and solitude and wanted nothing more for himself. The Holy See periodically called on him, however, to be a peacemaker or troubleshooter, between two abbeys in dispute or a cleric or government official in some disagreement with Rome.


Deeply versed in the Bible and the writings of earlier theologians, Peter developed his own theological acumen and became a skilled preacher. The leaders of other monasteries sought his help to build up their monks in holiness, and in 1043 he took up a position of leadership as the prior of Fonte Avellana. Five other hermitages were established under his direction.


Finally, Pope Stephen IX made Peter the cardinal-bishop of Ostia. He worked hard to wipe out simony—the buying of church offices–and encouraged his priests to observe celibacy and urged even the diocesan clergy to live together and maintain scheduled prayer and religious observance. He wished to restore primitive discipline among religious and priests, warning against needless travel, violations of poverty, and too comfortable living. He even wrote to the bishop of Besancon complaining that the canons there sat down when they were singing the psalms in the Divine Office.

With Pope Stephen's death in 1058, and the election of his successor Nicholas II, Peter's involvement in Church controversies grew. He supported Pope Nicholas against a rival claimant to the papacy, and went to Milan as the Pope's representative when a crisis broke out over canonical and moral issues. There, he was forced to confront rioters who rejected papal authority.


Peter, meanwhile, wished to withdraw from these controversies and return to the contemplative life. But Nicholas' death in 1061 caused another papal succession crisis, which the cardinal-bishop helped to resolve in favor of Alexander II. That Pope kept the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia occupied with a series of journeys and negotiations for the next six years.


He wrote many letters. Some 170 are extant. We also have 53 of his sermons and seven lives, or biographies, that he wrote. He preferred examples and stories rather than theory in his writings. The liturgical offices he wrote are evidence of his talent as a stylist in Latin.


He asked often to be allowed to retire as cardinal-bishop of Ostia, and finally Pope Alexander II consented. Peter was happy to become once again just a monk, but he was still called to serve as a papal legate. When returning from such an assignment in Ravenna, he was overcome by a fever. With the monks gathered around him saying the Divine Office, he died on February 22, 1072. In 1828, he was declared a Doctor of the Church.


Saint Peter Damian, Italian San Pier Damiani, (born 1007, Ravenna [Italy]—died February 22, 1072, Faenza; feast day February 21), cardinal and Doctor of the Church, an original leader and a forceful figure in the Gregorian Reform movement, whose personal example and many writings exercised great influence on religious

He is the patron saint of popes and of Rome and of many cities that bear his name, such as St.Petersburg and Saint-Pierre. As a former fisherman, he is the patron saint of netmakers, shipbuilders, and fishermen, and, because he holds the “keys of heaven,” he is also the patron saint of locksmiths.


In his Sept. 9, 2009 general audience on the saint, Pope Benedict XVI described him as "one of the most significant figures of the 11th century ... a lover of solitude and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform."


In 1067, Peter Damian was allowed to resign his episcopate and return to the monastery at Fonte Avellana. Two years later, however, Pope Alexander needed his help to prevent the German King Henry IV from divorcing his wife. Peter lived another two years in the monastery before making a pilgrimage to Monte Cassino, the birthplace of the Benedictine order.


In 1072, Peter returned to his own birthplace of Ravenna, to reconcile the local church with the Pope. The monk's last illness came upon him during his return from this final task, and he died after a week at a Benedictine monastery in Faenza during February of that year.


Never formally canonized, St. Peter Damian was celebrated as a saint after his death in many of the places associated with his life. In 1823, Pope Leo XII named him a Doctor of the Church and extended the observance of his feast day throughout the Western Church.

St. Peter Damian particularly understood the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary as "Mother of Mercy." Following are more quotes from this prayer, which explains her role in obtaining divine mercy:

"Far from being mindful only of God's justice, you have mercy too. Much as you are beyond suffering, you still feel pity over our sufferings. You have our nature still, and so it is but fair for you to pour out on us the dew of your great mercy more freely.

"He that is mighty has done great things to you.... You can raise to fresh hope those despairing of salvation. For how could the Almighty, Who took flesh from your flesh, resist your mighty intercession?

"Our Lady, I know that you are very gracious and cannot help loving us whom your Son and your God has loved with the greatest love. Who can tell how often you allay the ire of the Judge when the virtue of divine justice is about to strike?

"In your hands are the treasures of the Lord's mercy. You alone have been chosen to receive this great privilege. Far be it from you that your hand should cease to give, eager as you are for an occasion to save the wretched and to pour forth your mercy. For your glory is not lessened but enhanced when sorrowful sinners obtain forgiveness and, justified, are taken to Heaven.

It is our highest glory, next to God, to behold you, to cleave to you, and to stay under your strong protection. Hear us, for even your Son honors you by refusing nothing to you - He who is God, blessed forever. Amen.


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